Why We Need Diverse Autism Representations in Media3 min read

Representation of mar­gin­alised groups has become an impor­tant topic in media in the last decade, and autism is no excep­tion. Some progress has been made: we have main­stream TV shows where autistic people are the pro­tag­o­nists and have their own sto­ries. But for rep­re­sen­ta­tion to actu­ally be effec­tive and helpful, we need many, varied rep­re­sen­ta­tions of autism.

Here’s why.

Because autistic people are dif­ferent. It’s simply more accu­rate to show lots of dif­ferent kinds of autistic people. As the famous quote from Dr. Stephen Shore goes, “If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.”

But that’s not the way TV presents it. Autistic people in media tend to be stereo­types, like the socially-awkward white male geniuses in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, The Good Doctor and The Big Bang Theory. And a stereo­typ­ical char­acter is fine! Some autistic people are in fact like that. That’s why we need mul­tiple dif­ferent char­ac­ters so that some can be stereo­typ­ical and others can branch out. 

Because real­istic rep­re­sen­ta­tion of autism has real-world con­se­quences. Even apart from the emo­tional ben­e­fits it may have for autistic people to see them­selves rep­re­sented in pop­ular media, there is a very prac­tical reason real­istic and diverse por­trayals matter: diag­nosis.

Because autism diag­nosis is behaviour-based — there’s no blood test you can use — the behav­iour of autistic char­ac­ters affects society’s under­standing of what autism is. A person is more likely to be sent by their family or them­selves for diag­nosis, and per­haps more likely to be diag­nosed by a med­ical pro­fes­sional, if they align with these under­stand­ings.

Yet TV doesn’t reflect the range in actual autistic people; In 2018, a team led by Sue Fletcher-Watson pub­lished a paper in which they com­pared media por­trayals to the cri­teria in the DSM 5 and found that fic­tional char­ac­ters tend to adhere much more closely to the diag­nostic cri­teria than do real people diag­nosed with autism.  

Because it means better writing. If you’re a writer trying to write the only autistic char­acter in media, you may feel under a lot of pres­sure to please the mil­lions of autistic people in the world and their rel­a­tives and friends. That need for per­fect accu­racy can lead to writing to a check­list — cre­ating a char­acter whose only traits are the DSM 5 diag­nostic cri­teria for autism, blown up larger-than-life for TV.

Writers who know they’re just writing one autistic person, not rep­re­senting the whole con­di­tion, can focus on writing an actual person. And less pres­sure might mean more sto­ries fea­turing autistic people, which seems like a plus to me. 

Because readers and viewers are dif­ferent. Some people like to read or watch con­tem­po­rary sto­ries all about the life of an autistic person. But many people prefer fan­tasy, or sci-fi, or romance. Including autistic people in lots of dif­ferent sto­ries means reaching more people. 

Because it nor­malises autism. Having sto­ries that are about space­ships or that just have an autistic char­acter as part of a friend group or family is impor­tant. It shows that autism is just a part of life, not nec­es­sarily some­thing to be con­stantly remarked on and gog­gled at. 

Because autism is common. The CDC esti­mates that 1 in 68 chil­dren are autistic. It’s not that weird to have autistic people around as part of normal life in your book or show. 


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  1. There is an absolute lack of rep­re­sen­ta­tion of dif­ferent ethnic groups. I have written an article on the expe­ri­ences of African Caribbean boys expe­ri­ences in edu­ca­tion and the dis­pro­por­tionate levels of per­ma­nent exclu­sions. The lack of diver­sity means that if you are not a white male awk­ward geeky type you are not recog­nised at all. Not recog­nising autism in diverse pop­u­la­tion has severe con­se­quences with respect to diag­nosis, sup­port and under­standing vul­ner­a­bility. Hoping to see my article in print soon. Olatunde

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